Sophie Hoogendijk and Gideon Bolt from the Faculty of Geosciences at Utrecht University, describe the effects of office conversions in the Netherlands, with commentary on vacant offices in the built environment
In the Netherlands, 15.9% of the floor area of all offices were vacant in 2017, accounting for about 2,950,000 m2 of lettable office space (PBL 2017). Primarily, office vacancy is considered a private problem: the owner loses income from maintenance and utility costs and, therefore, has to look for new tenants or otherwise an alternative use for the building. According to the Dutch environmental and urban planning agency (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving), office vacancy also affects real estate investors and banks, which reverberate the national financial system. Nevertheless, Dutch institutional investors invest relatively minimally in commercial real estate in the Netherlands.
Furthermore, the total amount of investor capital fixed in Dutch real estate is gradually dwindling. As such, office vacancies pose a limited risk to overall Dutch investment activity. Banks, however, remain threatened by “problem loans” allocated to now-vacant office buildings (PBL 2017).
Vacancy as a societal problem
Whether or not office vacancy has a direct social effect on its urban environment is unclear. While it is commonly suggested that vacancy can have various negative externalities – i.e. contributing to lower liveability levels, urban deterioration, criminality, negative stereotypes, and association to local economic decline, which are consequently linked to local house price devaluation, national and international literature have not found definitive evidence in this respect (Donovan et al. 2017; PBL 2017).
Altogether, office vacancy poses limited known social and economic impacts beyond the immediate property owner. Nevertheless, economic capital remains inefficiently tied in such unprofitable investments, which not only requires ongoing financing, but also the continued and wasteful use of energy resources. Furthermore, these building-use ineptitudes stand in stark contrast with the Dutch social housing shortage. As such, office vacancy nods to greater social, economic, and environmental problems in the consumption of real estate in the Netherlands. Correspondingly, the Dutch government also formally declared the ongoing office surplus to be a societal problem.
The effects of office conversion
We investigated the effects of office conversion by interviewing both residents and their surrounding neighbours in two converted office buildings in the province of Utrecht (Hoogendijk, 2019).
In terms of the new social renting residents of the converted buildings studied, the overwhelming sentiment is the satisfaction with having safeguarded affordable housing. This result directly reflects institutional goals to cater to this housing demand. Nevertheless, residents report some difficulties with the technical qualities of their homes and the surrounding community-building infrastructure, such as playgrounds and other meeting places. As such, the converted apartments may not provide a sustainable setting for residential life in the long-term.
On the other hand, the new residents simultaneously benefit from the existing transportation infrastructure and retail services around their housing, thus allowing them to access and participate in the urban economy. Residents also benefit from the relatively energy-efficient installations in their ‘new’ apartments, which can contribute to lower monthly energy bills. Furthermore, realising social housing in private renting or owning neighbourhoods results in a more socioeconomically mixed urban community, which is desirable from a social sustainability perspective (Colantonio 2010). Albeit this argument is dampened by the low instance of social contact between the social renters and their neighbours, time may be an important factor for advancing their ongoing integration into the existing community.
The perspective of neighbouring residents
In regards to the neighbours surrounding the converted offices, their most disruptive experience of the office conversions was concentrated at the start of the buildings’ new lives. Predominantly, noise nuisance was experienced during the construction period and the first few days of the buildings’ residency. Other anticipated problems, such as parking shortages, were ultimately unaccounted for. Remaining issues could be addressed by the presiding housing organisation in cooperation with residents and/or neighbours.
However, both parties – the new residents and the existing neighbours alike – ask for more opportunities to foster social contact among each other. Next to promoting community attachment, pride, and participation, this could allow the community to resolve problems among themselves, disregarding the need for a third party. While this is happening internally to a certain degree – among the residents of the converted buildings – outward connections towards the surrounding neighbourhood would theoretically incur mutual and reinforcing benefits in terms of social sustainability. Nonetheless, in the current situation, the effect of the conversions on the social sustainability of their surrounding neighbourhoods was limited. Other than removing the threat of social problems associated with building vacancies, limited changes in the psychological states of the neighbours were measured.
Likewise, the office conversions were not considered to be of any financial value for their surrounding properties. While literature argues that building vacancies degrade the economic desirability of urban environments, homeowners did not feel threatened by the formerly vacant offices in this respect.
Conversely, neighbours do appreciate the adaptive reuse of vacant buildings into housing to be beneficial for the long-term environmental quality in their urban region; references are made to the threat of housing construction on the ongoing provision of green. As such, office conversion is hailed by the neighbours for presenting a consolidative solution that not only benefits their local community by removing opportunities for criminal activity, but also benefits greater urban society by preserving unbuilt land.
The office conversions have contributed to a shift in the environmental, economic, and social aspects of residential life in their respective neighbourhoods. While the short-term effects are more direct for the new residents, the neighbourhood also appears to start benefitting from the urban development in the long-term. The consolidative potential of office conversion is thus brought to the public eye, representing a tangible and local solution to the greater urban challenges of the Netherlands.
Colantonio, A. (2010). Urban social sustainability themes and assessment methods. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers: Urban Design and Planning 163(2), 79-88.
Donovan, S., J. Rouwendal, O. Levkovich & E. Buitelaar (2017). Een Onderzoek naar de Externe Effecten van Kantorenleegstand. Amsterdam, NL: ASRE.
Hoogendijk, S. (2019) Using Workplace to Create Social Housing Space: The Applicability of Office Conversion for Achieving Urban Sustainability in the Netherlands. Utrecht University (Master’s Thesis Human Geography)
PBL (2017). Leegstand van kantoren 1991-2017. Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving.
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